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Lee Siegel. Against the machine: Being human in the age of electronic mediaLee Siegel.
Against the machine: Being human in the age of electronic media.
New York: Spiegel and Gray, 2008.
cloth, 182 p., ISBN 978 0 38552 265 6, $US25.95.
Spiegel and Gray: http://www.spiegelandgrau.com

 


 

“Democracy’s fatal turn” is how author Lee Siegel describes the social, cultural and economic mutations that have taken place because of the Internet and, specifically, the demassified culture made possible by Web developments such as YouTube and social networking sites like Facebook. These cyberspaces have, the author believes, brought about disturbing results: “But now all experience is available as a form of culture. Which means that there are no criteria for judging these disjointed echoes of each other except their popularity. ... You must sound more like everyone else than anyone else is able to sound like everyone else.” [1] Whoever can do that — he believes — will reap, among other things, attention, popularity, and perhaps financial reward.

The Internet, he writes, has completely changed the practices of society: “[before the Internet] ... there came a moment when you turned off the TV or the stereo, or put down the book or magazine, or came home from the theater, or the opera, or the movies, You stopped doing culture and you withdrew — or advanced — into your private social space, or into your solitude. You used the phone. You went to the corner bar for a drink. ... Now, more often than not, you go to your computer and online.” [2]

The result of this deep emotional withdrawal of the individual into the interstices of the Internet is not what Internet boosters like to portray. Yes, Siegel agrees, there are valuable Web sites and individuals are able to solve problems on their own quickly that would have taken days or months prior to the Internet. But the pre–Internet demassification envisioned by Alvin Toffler and the empowerment of the individual that he believed was under way is sharply criticized by Siegel. In citing Toffler’s advocacy of the producer/consumer, or prosumer, the author shows what the consequences have been. “We must live as though every niche of existence, no matter how insignificant seeming, can be turned into a commodity or service that someone else will want to acquire.” [3] In other words, though Toffler couldn’t imagine the Internet at the time he was writing, Siegel thinks he accurately predicted its consequences: “... a world in which leisure time is saturated with economic urgency — the Intenet transvalues all experience into commercial experience.” [4]

Other pre–Internet writers were similarly prescient about where society was heading, even if they couldn’t have attributed developments to the Internet. YouTube and the social networking sites, Siegel writes, were unerringly anticipated by Christopher Lasch’s The culture of narcissism, a culture which causes people to be driven “... further into themselves,” creating “an inner emptiness by exalting the self and cutting it off from reality.” [5]

This would simply be a depressing book full of whining were it not for Siegel’s virtually uninterrupted strings of insights into what the Internet has done to people, what they have done to it, and what it is still becoming. The text’s subtitle would seem to suggest that some solutions are in store, and so there are — if only by inference. But these wait for further criticisms of writers such as Douglas Rushkoff (Playing the future: What we can learn from digital kids) [6], Malcom Gladwell, (The tipping point) [7], and Biz Stone’s Who lets the blogs out? [8] Of the latter, Siegel is withering: “What was it that attracted more than thirty thousand people, that got reprinted in Slate ... that ‘generated huge buzz in the blogosphere?’ Describing Stone as providing an application of Gladwell’s “recipes for [Internet] popularity,” [9] Siegel asks what the author had actually contributed to our understanding. Was it “An article about an original idea, a provocative idea, a masterpiece of style and sensibility and wit, a cry of protest or defiance against some crippling policy or convention? No. The article that generated the [book’s] huge popularity was an article about ... popularity.” [10]

That is what the Internet has become, he believes — a medium for hustling an anonymous kind of popularity without users standing out from the popular too much, and all in the service of emotionally internalized individuals and commercial interests. So what to do? The subtext of Siegel’s thesis is that we need to be far more aware of what the Internet has become, to be willing to challenge its uncritical boosters, and to retain our own sense of individuality through direct associations with others, apart from a virtual existence on the Internet. Siegel believes that many in a position to challenge the sweeping assertions of Internet promoters of such developments as Web 2.0 (users as producers–consumers) and blogging have simply abdicated responsibility, are too afraid to speak out, or have in effect sold out. He is especially critical of many mainstream media, particularly newspaper management, reporters and editors, for uncritically buying into the unexamined supposed benefits of the Internet–driven prosumer culture. He sees the independent observer, exemplified by independent newspapers and reporters, as increasingly scared of offending Internet boosters and hence increasingly diminishing in their ability to reinforce and undergird true democracy. The third section of his text, in particular, deals with this issue and contains a lengthy list of his own counterarguments to Internet proponents’ claims that the Internet culture promotes rather than discourages democracy. It can actually be just the reverse, Siegel argues.

At several points in this otherwise absorbing critique of current Internet culture, and despite his qualifying remarks, the reader may be left with an uneasy feeling that Siegel generalizes too much about Internet users. According to one study, many households aren’t connected to the Internet at all through conscious decision [11]. And for millions of others, it is little more than a utility for conveniently checking the weather, news and sports, and/or for buying things. Such users could care less about their visibility, or their online popularity, or whether they are being used by commercial interests. They aren’t interested in creating anything, do not want to be recognizable, nor attract or achieve commercial success. A danger of all Internet critiques is that the authors can seem to lose a sense of proportion. Siegel is certainly accurately describing many (particularly younger) Internet users. But he isn’t describing everyone or perhaps even most Internet users. The book is also susceptible to the “things are bad and getting worse” weakness. We have no idea what correctives the Internet may have built into its own current culture that we simply cannot see because we are too close to what we perceive the problems are.

But these reservations aside, Siegel exhibits courage and conviction. Both are on display on every page; he is afraid of no one. The book deserves wide circulation and discussion by anyone interested in democracy and the Internet’s contribution to it. — Douglas Kocher, Chair, Department of Communication, Valparaiso University. End of article

 

Notes

1. Siegel, pp. 78–79.

2. Siegel, pp. 77–78.

3. Siegel, p. 58; See Alvin Toffler, 1970. Future shock (New York: Random House).

4. Siegel, p. 60.

5. Siegel. p. 49; See Christopher Lasch, 1991. Culture of narcissism: American life in an age of diminishing expectations (New York: W.W. Norton).

6. Douglas Rushkoff, 1999. Playing the future: What we can learn from digital kids (New York: Riverhead Books).

7. Malcolm Gladwell, 2002. The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference (Boston: Back Bay Books).

8. Originally an article, this work by Biz Stone became Who let the blogs out? A hyperconnected peek at the world of Weblogs (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004).

9. Siegel, p. 96.

10. Siegel, p. 97.

11. Well over a quarter of U.S. homes have no access to the Internet by choice. See Park Associates, at http://www.parksassociates.com/press/press_releases/2006/nat-scan_pr1.html.

Copyright © 2008, First Monday.

Book review of Lee Siegel’s Against the machine: Being human in the age of electronic media
by Douglas Kocher.
First Monday, Volume 13, Number 11 - 3 November 2008
http://www.firstmonday.dk/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2304/2053





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